Apr 25, 2011
The newest controversy in the land of mobile devices is the story of cellular-enabled iOS devices tracking and storing location in a file called consolidated.db. This file apparently tracks locations that your device has been, which can be mapped using an open-source utility. This has naturally caused mass hysteria among the tech media.
First off, this seems kind of silly – one of the reactions to this story is that this would make it easier to convict people of crimes based on information on your phone. The lesson here? If you’re planning on committing a crime, don’t carry a device that could track your location in your pocket. The second is that this is hardly news at all – according to Alex Levinson and Sean Morrissey, they not only discovered this location storage last year, they published a physical book on it in December 2010. This isn’t even news, as much as it is a sexy story that media is covering because it just happened to be a convenient time for it to break. The third is that this data isn’t really in any particular jeopardy without you being insecure in any way – if your iOS backups are encrypted, then they can’t be extracted without your password. If you don’t let other people get your hands on your phone, to access your data, then people can’t access your location log surreptitiously. The ironic part is that getting rid of the location tracking is that you have to jailbreak your iOS device to install untrackerd – opening your file system to ease a privacy concern seems like a very, very stupid idea just in theory.
And, mind you, this may be a far more innocuous story than we think – first off, this data isn’t accessible by apps directly, just by Apple, who are using it in part to improve location services, and there’s no evidence in particular that Apple is acting as Big Brother and keeping track of everywhere you go, as much as they’re just trying to use the data to improve the iOS location experience. Secondly, there’s a possibility that the entire collection of data isn’t purposeful – according to Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, this is likely just a glitch where entries beyond any recent data aren’t being cleared out, so instead of being a file of everywhere your iPhone or iPad has ever been, it’s meant to just be a log of recent locations that is being sent to Apple every 12 hours, in part because Apple is working on their own location services after abandoning Skyhook’s services. While Gruber is often insufferable, he does have plenty of inside information at Apple, so there’s a good chance this is just a glitch.
Now, mind you, Android is doing the exact same thing, storing some location data on the phone. However, this data is a bit more hidden than on iOS, as it’s stored in the root partition, so your device would need to be rooted in order to access it. This difference is only really trivial for someone who really wants your data, however. Most notably, it only stores the latest entries, and not all entries ever, presumably for sending to Google. This caused John Gruber to say that “Android is doing it right,” which may be the cause of any kind of future apocalyptic event. Still, it’s kind of funny that this hasn’t received any kind of significant press, either.
The media reaction has been all about the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about this whole issue, and less any kind of rational reaction – the fear that the company that once threw a hammer at Big Brother is now Big Brother themselves. However, this appears to be more media and user hysteria over what might amount to a glitch, over a story that broke in part because some people thought they found something and wanted to publish something about it, and the media picked up on it, without anyone thinking deeper than what the initial details brought up. Guess people just go crazy whenever something happens in iOS land.